On HBO’s The Deuce, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a former sex worker in 1970s New York who gradually shifts into performing in and directing porn. Throughout the second season, Candy’s story becomes more and more about a woman finding her own artistic vision — a transformation that Gyllenhaal, also a producer on The Deuce, was insistent on becoming a major part of the character’s story. I recently had lunch with Gyllenhaal in Brooklyn, where we talked about why it was so important that Candy become a director, about having conversations with sex workers on Twitter, and about why a show with such contemporary relevance has had a relatively small audience. We also discussed sex shows, corporate lawyers, James Franco, Fleabag, and how many orgasms is too many orgasms.
You’ve said that when you go into a scene, you like to try and play with it. What does the playing feel like?
In many scenes, there’s a simple way of looking at it. I usually try to open some space in my mind to let the scene knock around for a few days. And then you go, Oh, I see, this scene is actually about these other things. If you’ve done that work, if you’ve done layers of thinking about what the scene is, the trick is to see where it goes.
If you know what it is you want, and you’re working with a good actor opposite you, and you shift to a different way of getting what you want, then they shift with you. Which is the beautiful, wonderful case with me and David Krumholz, who plays Harvey [Wasserman on The Deuce]. We have such a really special artistic relationship, and our characters do too.
How does playing an artistic relationship in front of the camera affect the relationship behind the camera and vice versa?
What’s really interesting about working on a television show where it’s being written as you’re working — and where, as a producer, I’m in conversation with them often about the script and the story — is that what is actually happening between David and I on set, our performance, affects what the next scenes will be and how they’re going to proceed.
Last night I was watching Woman of the Year, a Katharine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy movie, and they take such pleasure in each others’ ability to match each other. Sometimes with an acidity; sometimes it’s real tough. That’s what Candy and Harvey’s relationship is. And they love each other very much. It’s not a sexual relationship, so I think it’s easier for her to go to a real, a deeper place.
She has so few interactions with men that aren’t sexual.
I’ve gotten into trouble with sex workers online for saying this, but my fantasy of that life is that it’s got to be numbing. From what I understand, from the research I’ve done, from the people I’ve talked to, in 1971 if you were a sex worker, you might sleep with eight to ten men a night.
What have sex workers said about your work in The Deuce?
They’ve fired at me on Twitter to say, “There really isn’t a difference between the difficulties of their job and the difficulties of, say, being a waitress.” In some ways there’s something really true about that, in terms of the way that every woman has to maneuver and manage the sexual politics of the world. In other ways, I think that’s an interesting lie. I know almost nothing about sex work right now, but in the old-fashioned version I am portraying, where you go into a hotel room with someone and you pretend that you have the power and the control because you’re trading a commodity, in many cases the woman could be easily overpowered by the man and brutalized. I’m really interested in the ways that the conversation about sex work lays everything out on the table.
When people say things like that to you on Twitter, do you respond?
Yeah, that was after season one. I felt like, I really am on your side. I’m trying to portray something that feels human and real, but I’m not speaking for you. This is my fantasy.
Annie Sprinkle, the feminist pornographer–performance artist, hooked me up with this woman named Madison Young. Sprinkle did this sex show in the ‘80s, but Madison did a reinterpretation of it from her own point of view, and Annie asked me to please go and see it. I did — and I was a little bit scared, to be honest. I’d never seen a sex show or really knew what one was. They said in the beginning, “If you feel like you need to go outside, if you get uncomfortable, feel free to go.” And I thought, I haven’t seen a piece of theater that’s made me feel like I need to get up and go outside, maybe ever. But in an intelligent, graceful way, it pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could handle in terms of ideas about sex and sexuality. I did feel like I needed to get up and go outside. I didn’t, though.
When did you see that show?
While I was shooting season two.
What was it like?
It was a one-woman show, where she talks about her experience as a sex worker and a pornographer, and her marriage in a BDSM relationship with her husband. It’s really hardcore. It was a world I didn’t know about! Like nothing I’d ever seen before.
How did watching that change the way you feel about The Deuce?
Candy is truly an iconoclast; I’m pretending to be [one]. I have some very old-fashioned ideas about sex, personally, that I didn’t even know I had. [Madison’s] show pushed me out of my comfort zone in terms of some of my ideas about sex. It made me more like Candy.
I’ve been surprised by the quiet response to The Deuce. Has that been surprising at all for you?
I dunno, David [Simon] always said that his shows take a while to get found. What’s difficult about it, for some people, is that it is a story that’s getting paid off years after it starts. This is a show about sexual politics, about the commodification of sex, about women as artists and how they use their bodies.
That’s why the reception has surprised me, because it feels so fitting for this moment.
Yeah, but it isn’t an easy thumbs-up. It’s saying, We’re all responsible for this. Women have played a part in this horrible place we are in, as well as men. Women played this part because they were backed into a corner. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t support themselves without marrying someone, so, of course, we’re gonna use everything in our toolbox to get the things we need. But it’s not the simple story of “men are our enemies and if we could just get rid of our enemies, we’re all gonna be okay.” It’s the story of a deeply rooted cultural problem which stems from capitalism as much as sexism and racism.
It’s difficult to look that in the eye, because it means a serious reassessment of the way that we live. It can be hard work. But to me, hard work with some humor and sex? That sounds like a great time!
What do you like watching on TV?
I watch very little, but I loved Fleabag. The second season of that show was so beautiful. So funny and wonderful, but also so deeply soulful. It was so brilliant that [Fleabag] is with a guy that she doesn’t like, she sleeps with him, and he makes her come nine times. She gives this little monologue where she basically says, “Coming nine times isn’t satisfying to me! I don’t want that!” It’s such a feminine perspective, because as a woman you can understand.
Did you know that character is called Hot Misogynist?
Really? [Laughs.] She acts like she’s so pleased! I don’t know how many stupid comedies there are where the act of coming nine times would be the ultimate goal. As opposed to this, where you’re like, “Yes! I don’t want to come nine times!”
That’s too many times!
It’s too many times! [Laughs.]
When you’re watching The Deuce, are there times when you think, “That scene should be a little different?”
There are, yeah. But they’re usually not scenes that I’m in, because if I’m in them then I’ll say, “Excuse me, this should be different!”
It must feel good to have that power to change things.
If I say, “This isn’t quite right, you guys,” David and George will sometimes push back, but they’ll take me very seriously. Sometimes they’re right and I’m wrong! Which is such a pleasure, to work with someone where you’re like, “Oh yeah, you know how to do this. You know more than me!”
I don’t give many notes about other characters. Every now and then I’ll do it, if I see something really glaring, but mostly no. I feel like that’s the next step with us. Maybe I’ll direct something in another show with them. But for now, I feel like that’s not really the agreement we made.
Was that an explicit agreement?
No, but I have felt my way through this. I have free rein to comment as loosely and as openly as I want to about my scenes and my work, and I haven’t really pushed beyond that. It’s a lot of work just to take care of Candy. But I think that’s where we would go next, if we were to continue to work together.
Does it annoy you when you get questions about James Franco? There’s this tendency where women are asked to answer for the men around them who have been accused of misconduct.
Yeah, that annoys me. I have been asked to answer for him and I have nothing to do with it. But I feel like it’s important to continue making the show. I feel like a political wife or something. I don’t like that.
I wondered if some of those questions were because you’re a producer, and you’ve been so vocal about having creative power within the show.
Yes, I was a part of that conversation. It was a lot of really intelligent people who were able to think in a nuanced way, who were talking with the actors and the crew. My conversation with an actress on the show is going to be very different than David Simon’s conversation with an actress on the show, but I do think we all tried to use the most nuanced part of our minds to think this through.
I feel, and I continue to feel, that this is a show about all of these things. To cancel a show about sexual politics, sexual power, the commodification of sex in the film business would be really confused. And nobody was willing to continue to make it without him.
How much of the story was planned out from the beginning?
With David and George [Pelecanos], fundamentally, they have an idea of what’s going to happen. But sometimes, big things change! Candy was not going to be a director. I really pushed that on them. She was designed to make a leap into being a producer.
Why was it so important to you that she be a director?
If she’s an artist, there’s nothing that can stop her. If she’s a producer, it’s fundamentally about money. I really became clear about that in the second episode of the first season. She does her first porn, and my fantasy of that scene is that she’s fucking these guys, and then sees the light [from the film set]. It’s the birth-of-an-artist moment.
As Candy takes increasing control of her own work, you’ve also been doing the same in your career. Do you find your life and your art often intersect?
I just sold my house. It was very complicated, with many ups and downs. I don’t think I’m born to be a negotiator. I’m happy with the softness of my heart. But I’m not good at it! While I was in the thrall of selling this house, I was looking at my scenes for the next day. It was lots and lots of scenes, and I realized that every single one of them was a negotiation. One of them was a straight-up, explicit negotiation, and the other ones were, metaphorically. Is Candy an expert negotiator? Is she better than me? We’ll see!
My job is finding empathy, listening, having the most open and vulnerable heart. If you’re dealing with a corporate lawyer on the other side … you’re fucked!